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Influencer QA

Helping a Hoarder

Dear Crucial Skills,

Help! I am the wife of a hoarder. My husband buys and keeps everything. He has a hobby room, garage, and a rented storage unit full of stuff, including twenty-year-old key chains from vendor booths, console TVs from the 1970s, empty boxes, old magazines, plastic silverware, and anything others don’t want or need. It is in no particular order and the spaces are chaotic and embarrassing to the rest of the family. His space at work is in the same condition!

I spoke to him about cleaning up, sorting through, and getting rid of unnecessary items with no success. Do you have any advice on how to approach this?

Signed,
Stuffed Full

Dear Stuffed,

Yes, I have advice!

Before I start, please note that my response won’t give you specifics on dealing with hoarding—which is a psychological problem with its own characteristics and about which I am not an expert. I hope some of what I’ve written helps you think about the common challenge every reader of this newsletter faces—the challenge of influencing those we love to change habits that are far larger than a crucial conversation.

This is not a Crucial Conversations issue, it’s an influence problem.

Crucial conversations are great at influencing change when all it takes to change is surfacing an issue and providing straightforward advice and accountability. We have spent twenty-five years studying and writing about these methods because they are often the simplest step forward and the step people are most reluctant and incapable of taking.

But sometimes the behavior won’t yield to a ten-minute conversation and a bit of follow up. For example, a dear friend recently suffered his third heart attack. After his first, his doctor counseled him to change his eating habits, exercise more, and take blood pressure medication. Terrified of the heart attack, he complied with this advice. For a while. But within a few months, he was eating cheesy burritos, channel surfing, and failing to take his medication. Then came the second heart attack. And the second recommitment to changing his behavior. And the second descent into old ways. And so on.

As all this happened, his children and wife had many crucial conversations with him—pleading with him to change, reminding him of how they had almost lost him. But the more they tried to help, the more resentful he became. They became nags, and rather than influence change, they provoked his resistance to change.

When we treat an influence problem as a crucial conversation, we not only fail to produce change, we can (with all the best intentions in the world) become nags in the process. Perhaps you haven’t crossed the “nag” line yet, but if you continue down this path, it is most likely coming!

So how do you escape this trap?

Recognize the size of the problem. The problem is not only that your husband lacks the will to change. The problem is that he is blind and outnumbered. And so are you! He’s blind to how many sources of influence are sustaining his hoarding habit. And he’s outnumbered because there are far more sources working against him than for him.

We often think overcoming a habit like hoarding is just about personal motivation (The first source of influence), but it’s not. It’s also about personal ability (the second source of influence). Your husband likely has powerful impulses that drive him toward this behavior and lacks the skills he needs to retrain those impulses. He needs coaching and mentoring—and maybe even professional help—not just encouragement. If you try to motivate someone who is unable, the result is not change but depression. If you want to help him increase his ability to change, you’ll need to identify the strategies people use to successfully escape hoarding.

Please note that this is an example of just one of the six sources of influence that are likely at play here. Make a study of the six sources of influence and reflect on which are part of the problem. Our forthcoming book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, will be a useful tool in helping you explore all six sources in the context of personal change.

Control your own behavior. The most powerful human impulse is the need for control. People resist any attempt to constrain or force their behavior. Untold millions have gone to war and given their lives rather than submit to tyranny. We do the same, even when defending our autonomy to behave badly.

If you want to increase your influence, give up any desire to control your husband’s behavior. In fact, the first question you should ask yourself is, “How can I prepare myself for this behavior to continue forever?” You need to get to the point that you decide how you will control your own choices without centering your life on his choices. If, in the extreme case, you would prefer to live without him rather than with his hoarding, you need to be clear on that. If you can cope with the hoarding and would prefer to continue the marriage, lovingly, maturely, and respectfully set boundaries to make it work. Don’t “use” these boundaries as a way to manipulate him.

Help him motivate himself. The most common question we’re asked by those trying to influence a loved one is, “How can I help them want to change?” When it comes to personal change, the answer is, you can’t. However, you can influence their personal motivation in two ways:

Stop standing between him and consequences. Direct experience is life’s great teacher, but we often undermine people’s motivation to change by standing between them and the natural consequences they would otherwise feel. For example, a drug addict who is financially supported by those who want him to change is protected from the financial misery that might help him connect his choices with consequences he doesn’t like. The first thing you and your family can do is examine the ways in which you enable your husband’s actions by not letting him experience the natural consequences of this habit. If you are doing this, find a healthy way to change. If the change will be jarring to your husband, be sure to have a crucial conversation to help him understand what you will change and why.

Help him find his own reasons to change. With most bad habits, people have moments of clarity. Moments when we feel a desire to change. Skillful influencers can help others extend the potency of these moments by reacting with a motivational interview rather than a motivational speech. A motivational interview is a simple, structured way to help others explore and crystallize their own reasons to change and plan for doing so rather than taking control and forcing our own agenda on them. How you react during small moments of motivation can either help others capitalize on them or overpower them with your own well-intended but overwhelming motivations.

Again, I am not an expert on hoarding, nor is this a complete plan for change. However, I hope some of these insights help in the challenge of influencing a loved one to change potentially destructive behavior.

Best wishes—and please let me know what you learn about influence in the coming months and years.

Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

18 thoughts on “Helping a Hoarder”

  1. As a person with ADHD, I can easily get overwhelmed with my own clutter and am unable to deal with it. I have a high tolerance for clutter but am much happier when things are neat and orderly. If someone sets up places to put things for me, then I can follow it (most of the time.) I have great trouble setting up the system to keep things neat.

    My suggestion would be for her to aske her husband if he would like things neater but does not know where to start and is overwhelmed. This way she can hire a company to set up a storage system for his stuff and he can keep what he wants and know where to find it. What will happen, in my experience, is that he will throw some of it away during the process.

    I have a room filled to the brim while the rest of the house is neat. I would love someone to clean it out and arrange things for me… maybe I will take my own advice!!

    1. CJ you have described “me” when describing yourself. I wish I could afford someone to come set up my house so I would know where to put what. I really have no idea where to start! I am able to throw out things and constantly have to work on it. But where to put the things I have to keep seems overwhelming. I have tried to use list from the internet but get frustrated and quit! I hate my house so messy. I have to work harder to clean because of it. I have several crafts I like to do but never have time. I don’t think I am a hoarder but could very easily cross that line therefore the reason I am online looking for help!
      I wish you luck!
      RH

  2. I’m a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which makes me want to hoard stuff. If her husband has OCD and this is the cause of his hoarding, he’ll likely get bad anxiety anytime he thinks of throwing something away that might come in handy sometime. I’d recommend finding a therapist that specializes in dealing with OCD. Without a coach/consultant that understands obsessive compulsive thought patterns, it can be really hard to learn the techniques necessary to change.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Mike. I appreciate you weighing in with your first-hand experience because so often those who don’t know what it feels like tend to think it’s all just a motivation problem. You persuasively argue that social support and coaching are a huge part of necessary influence with a challenge like this.
    @Mike

  4. WOW! That is great advice. My husband is not really a hoarder but never puts things away or throws things out and the outcome is very similar. Crucial conversations as well as yelling, nagging, and threatening have done ZERO to change the behavior. Now I understand why… Thanks

  5. I have a similar issue, and this article was helpful – and the comments also gave me some ideas! Thanks.

  6. Thanks for the article. I have suffered from too much clutter for years which has blossomed into a full house, a packed extra room, a $100 per month storage, and recently boxes in every nook in my home. My family is embarrassed and I am full of stories. Too tired, too stressed, and too anxious to go through the “stuff.” I have read every clutter book and every attempted every method of labelling, re-packing, and storage system. I suffer from depression and anxiety so when I do see a therapist, we deal with other issues and not the stuff. I am tempted to call a “TV show” to come help me but the thought that everyone “would be in my life” terrifies me. I see myself slowly slipping into becoming a hoarder and your comments help me see that I need more focused help and more focused goals. I just don’t know how to break this barrier and take the first step.

  7. I married a wonderful man that could not throw anything away. I made that choice and now it has become overwhelming. The amount of clutter has intruded on my feelings for him. I am embarrassed, my family has never visited me in my house and I have been married for 11 years. Threats, yelling, trying to help by cleaning up don’t help. What can I do short of leaving him? I don’t have the resources to leave.

    1. It’s sad, but kind of reassuring, to learn of your predicament Kathy s …… I am totally in the same boat! My husband is the most loving, kind, generous, funny and supportive man I have ever known. With a well respected job, he is the pillar of our community and everyone adores him. Our home has become like a storage unit and I am struggling to cope with the total chaos. He collects and hoards everything. I want to scream every time I hear the phrases “that’ll come in handy one day” or “A man can never have enough *” (insert any word here; ties, socks, shirts,books, tools, newspapers, jars, bits of wood, tools, sofas, DVDs,CDs, toothbrushes, deodorants, watches……. amongst other things he collects – yup, everything seems to work in that space!)
      I am mortified if we have to let anyone into the house as I am sooooo embarrassed. I’ve spent more hours moving, what I would deem as useless things, from one room to another and back again over the years that I am physically and emotionally drained. Our house has become inhabitable. I can’t do a single thing without having to move lots of stuff first. His problem is so severe that he can not put anything in the rubbish. Not an old toilet roll tube or an empty packet…… he never empties anything to avoid throwing it away, a few crumbs in a crisp bag or a dribble of drink in a can or bottle.
      I love him with all my heart and soul, like so many others he just can’t see there is a problem or just how much it effects us as a couple, our family and our friendships. I am at breaking point. We have the same doctor and he has gently suggested to my husband that he might benefit from counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy which made hubby laugh at the time but made his hoarding noticeably worse in the following few weeks!
      My husband was a pack rat when I first met him and he did go along way to store a lot of his things when we set up home together but as the outs turned to years his hoarding has escalated. I guess I kidded myself that if he was happier in his mind it would get better. I have NEVER thrown anything out behind his back, or moaned or nagged as I realised long ago that being negative could make the situation even worse. The clutter is now all consuming, I am at the end of my tether and I can only see three possible outcomes. A. I somehow continue to live with this, which is having a direct and profound impact on my life,
      B. He seeks professional help or C. I leave him.
      I love him so much but I can’t cope any longer !

  8. I sympathize with you Kathy S. I’ve been married 37 years to a hoarder. It got really, really bad when he retired 10 years ago (and I didn’t) as he now has control of the house. I just spend more and more hours at my shop to avoid going home and living with the clutter. And yes, Sharon, mine can no longer throw anything away…the cut-off top from a bag of peanuts, used paper towels, receipts and more receipts (gas, groceries, drug store, whatever). Beer caps when he pops one goes from his pants pocket to the dresser top.

    We had a garage sale; I wanted to donate the stuff that remained. No. He was going to have another one (this was 6 months ago). Junk still in the garage. I put an old stained chair out for the garbage pick-up. It came back into the garage.

    I have thrown and donated stuff when I could get him out of the house for more than 6 hours. If he finds out, he’s furious at me.

    To top it off, he’s a major cheapskate. He’s in charge of grocery shopping and won’t buy anything unless it’s on sale and then he goes overboard! Do we really need 8 boxes of macaroni noodles?? I’m actually trying to figure out how to financially separate us so I can leave.

    My son’s wife of 2 years has never been to our house (he’s too embarrassed to bring her). The kids have volunteered to help get rid of the trash, but that would just direct their father’s anger at them. Better it’s me. It’s hard to undo a lifetime, but I’m about there. We no longer have any friends (never able to reciprocate invites); my life is work and sleep. Not how I want to spend my senior years. I’m almost 64.

    1. Do we really need 8 boxes of macaroni noodles?? No!!! And places like Costco bulk buying don’t help! ….Hoarder dream Costco…..That’s a long time to live with one, think of your own Mental Health also, it’s so dang selfish!!!

  9. I read your response to this woman, and I was okay up until you pointed out the lack of descresion on the drug addict. It is the same disease. As a coach and a mentor or people in recovery, people do learn by their limitations, that is correct, however you leave out an important fact. That when someone is dealing with a stressor, and they don’t have tools options before them they will revert back to the old ways. It is a hormonal response also that impresses how that growing to change is done. We are our Brothers Keepers not to do it for them, but to support them going forward. Helen Keller: her father supported her and Anne Sullivan trained her. She is a true inspiration to how this disease is battled. It’s daily, and over time there will be results. Learning to mind our own business’ is also an act of Love. Marriage has nothing to do with managing the disease. We all have a moment in our days where we do something against ourselves to the dismay to others. That’s Life!!
    Coexisting is Love Patience and tolerance to those moments shows and enforces Love. If it doesn’t go our way, who are we? But if they are truly maing bad decisions that effect others outcomes we are those that love enough to assist them to people who know how to deal with these imbalances. It’s a hormonal imbalance, otherwise better known as diabetes. Death and perception of loss interupt these pathways and make memory on our brains, teaching us reaction. If we react with equal force we will be okay. If we over react we need help. It’s that simple, to get us back to same same reaction. Homeostasis.. There will be a stretch in elasticity of these stretches depends on how fast you recover. That’s instinctual for survival.
    People went to war for the wrong reasons, manipulated for greed. However, sometimes it was for rights of the underdog. Keep that distinction as well.

  10. Hoarding is a really chronic relapsing illness, Not seen many that beat it, I would leave myself. That or throw a match into it all, from insanity in the end, awful illness to have. I’m a minimalist…but i know someone who is like this, it sends me insane. It’s like they are married to the stuff, it fills a void of something else, a wardrobe is like a hit of heroin or a new cupboard. Not to mention it’s a huge fire hazard all this stuff. Live on your own, i know it sounds mean but leave the person, living with one would send me nuts.

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